Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Science of History

by Patricia Bracewell

Much of what we know of early England has been gleaned from the annals known today as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. This compilation of the history of the English people, written down in Old English over three centuries, is concerned not only with events such as battles, the passing of kings or matters relating to church hierarchy, but recounts as well natural events which must have been significant at the time. The chroniclers were fascinated especially by celestial events – eclipses, shooting stars and comets. Often, what they recorded in their annals can be compared to observations made elsewhere, and so verified.

Consider this entry from 1066: There was over all England such a token seen as no man ever saw before. Some men said that it was the comet-star, which others denominate the long-hair’d star. It appeared first …on the eighth before the Calends of May; and so shone all the week.

The Irish annals for that year corroborate the sighting: A star appeared on the seventh of the Calends of May, on Tuesday after Little Easter, than whose light the brilliance or light of the moon was not greater; and it was visible to all in this manner till the end of four nights afterwards.

The comet-star of 1066 in the Bayeux Tapestry

Seven hundred years later Edmund Halley would verify that sighting as the comet that bears his name.

In 1098 the chronicler described another celestial event in this way: The heaven was of such a hue, as if it were burning, nearly all the night. 

And again in 1131: After Christmas was the heaven on the northern hemisphere all as if it were burning fire; so that all who saw it were so dismayed as they never were before.

The rare, red aurora borealis.

Here is the aurora borealis, described by men who could not have imagined that high above the earth, gaseous particles were colliding to form terrifying lights in the sky.

But it was not only celestial events that drew the attention of the chroniclers. Part of the entry for 1014 reads:

This year, on the eve of St. Michael’s day, came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people.

Anyone reading this today would recognize it as a description of a tsunami. We’ve already experienced two such massive sea floods in this young century, and we know what devastation such events can cause. The word itself would not be incorporated into the English language until the 19th century, thanks to the Japanese who, like the English, live surrounded by water. But although the word we use today did not exist in 1014, the great sea-flood of that year was corroborated all over southern Britain by annalists writing in Wales, Cornwall, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. In addition, a chronicle written at the Convent of Quedlinburg Abbey in Saxony states that in that year a great flood struck Juteland, Holstein, Friesland, the Netherlands and Belgium.

1607 Flood in the Bristol Channel

There is no question that the great sea-flood of 1014 was a tsunami. But what caused it? To answer that question, scientists have looked to the earth, gathered data, and then, like the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, they have looked to the skies.

The first bit of data comes from North Carolina. Geologists tell us that in the 11th century a Class 5 hurricane or a tsunami destroyed a chain of barrier islands off the coast of that state, and that the Outer Banks are a remnant of those islands.

The next bit of evidence was found in bog core samples from the Black Rock Forest Area of New York, and dated to the 11th century. They contained exotic components from an area of the ocean floor some 3700 km away, and their presence can only be explained by some kind of impact event in the mid-Atlantic.

What was that impact event? Forensic geologist Dallas Abbott suggests that it was a meteor strike, creating a tsunami that swept westward to North America and eastward through the English Channel. It may have looked something like this:

The meteor, landing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, would have been seen by no one. The innumerable multitude of people who were inundated by the wave that followed could not have imagined what was heading toward them. The men who wrote the chronicles, though, took note of that wave. They used the words and the experiences that they had at their disposal to describe it. It was a great sea-flood, overwhelming and deadly. A thousand years later we are able to combine their observations with scientific research to determine that the terrible devastation wrought by the sea in October of 1014 probably had its origins in the sky.


Abbott, Dallas. “Exotic Grains in a core from Cornwall, NY- Do They Have an Impact Source?” Journal of Siberian Federal University. Accessed online 16 August, 2013 at <>
 Patricia Bracewell is a former English teacher turned writer who lives in Northern California. Her  debut novel Shadow on the Crown, the first book in a trilogy about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy, is available in Britain and the U.S. For more information, please visit her website,, and look for her on Facebook at PatriciaBracewell/Author.


  1. really interesting - thanks for sharing!

  2. Makes you wonder if those Lost Realm legends (Ker Ys, Cantrer Gwaelod, Vineta, etc.) had a basis in a similar event some hundred years earlier where bits of land may have been lost to the sea perpetually. In case of Rungholt, which disappeared in the 14th century in a flood, not a tsunami, remains have been found by now, so there is some truth to some of the legends. Only it was no golden-roofed city of splendour, but just your average Mediaeval harbour.

    1. I think you may be right, Gabriele. And of course it wasn't just happening in the British Isles. Consider Atlantis.

    2. Yes, when the Santorin volcano blew up, there must have been a tsunami in the Mediterranean that surely left its traces in the legends of the people living on its shores. I think Plato's Atlantis is the literary version of some of these.

      And going further back, we also have the rising sea levels when the galciers of the last ice age melted. Those, too, will have led to myths (Noah's Ark, maybe).

  3. Great post, Pat, tweeted and shared.

  4. Wonderful essay on every level. Doesn't it make you admire the accuracy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

  5. Great post! Such a shame those folks didn't understand the aurora and, therefore, couldn't just sit back and enjoy the lights.


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